Here’s a riddle: Who is alone but not a loner, invisible but always present? Answer: a great remote worker.
It may seem like a group of qualified employees who are well suited to working from home are all you need to form a fantastic culture. A fixed office isn’t necessary to create an environment in which personal strengths become everybody’s assets. Yet, virtual proximity alone is not enough to develop group identity, which is the basis of company culture. How people who share an identity interact is what’s important, and this dynamic can spell the difference between a live culture and a dead one.
Does your organization’s social structure have a pulse? Here are five ways to inject life into your remote band of workers.
1. Hire for personality. This is advantageous for any company, but especially for those with virtual offices. You want people who can do their assigned jobs, but hiring people who are open and able to learn new things will give you that. It’s helpful in the virtual space to attract individuals whose personal attributes align with the company’s values and mission, and who are not only self-starters but “self-finishers.”
I frequently get calls from people I know, asking me for a job because they’d like to work from home. That’s great. But employees’ first priorities should be to work for a company they like and respect, doing something they have or can develop a passion for. Beyond that, they need the type of personality that can handle off-site work.
Effective remote workers are naturals at time management, self-direction, and focusing amid minor distractions. They need to be able to let the household chores go until after a pressing deadline, and they need to be able to communicate well long-distance. Also, like the riddle above suggests, they must be able to work well solo, without the in-person social support others enjoy. To find out if they meet these criteria, look at what makes your best employees tick and set requirements that echo those strengths.
2. Help them set virtual boundaries. First, consider how the workspace affects productivity. The hype says that remote work can be done anywhere, so many people stick a desk in a corner of their house or carry their laptops from one coffee shop to the next. Can they really focus with the television or espresso machine going? Your company might suggest or require a dedicated, nonpublic space from which to work, without interruption from loud appliances or baristas.
Next, ask potential hires how they would deal with intrusions on their time from friends and family members. Even well-meaning people are more likely to ask for favors or your company on outings when they know you work from home.
Finally, discuss what a typical work schedule should look like. Remote employees who love their jobs may tend to skip breaks or work through lunch or vacation time. Their burnout becomes your problem when it affects the quality of their work.
3. Promote good listening. Barriers to communication that often can be avoided in person may take more work to overcome remotely. Humans rely on tone of voice, facial expressions, and knowledge of the person speaking in order to understand where they’re coming from and what they’re trying to convey.
Members of my company practice listening techniques that let both parties know what was perceived and whether more information is needed to get a clear picture of the message. Repeating back key points and asking directly about a speaker’s intent are simple ways to use what you’ve heard to ensure it’s what was meant.
Any tool at your disposal that aids in clarification is fair game. Emojis in text, video conferences, and surveys that reveal people’s preferred mode of contact (phone, e-mail, instant message) all help people connect and listeners understand clearly what is being said.
4. Encourage acknowledgement. To avoid isolation, bring your staff together regularly to celebrate successes big and small. Private kudos are helpful, but those sent out to the whole group help people bond and learn each other’s strengths. Witnessing acknowledgement motivates people to strive toward that good example set by coworkers.
In my virtual office, we use thank yous every day to create that warm, fuzzy feeling and to spur people to reach their best potential. A simple way to do this via an online network is to reserve a specific icon for achievement—in our case, it’s a stylized green flag. When someone gets help on a project or lands a coveted account, we send out a green flag and greeting for all to see.
5. Welcome everybody. While a virtual office does increase flexibility and job satisfaction, it loses those chance opportunities to get to know people or gain unsolicited insights that might shed light on tasks or projects. You can instill these into your company culture by providing ways to gather remotely and exchange information on a more casual basis.
Including a “virtual water cooler” in your communication system—whether it’s on a dedicated app or via a social media page—restores some of those lost social opportunities. I find that you never know where valuable ideas will come from—the kind you don’t know you need until you hear them. So my company often calls a “cockroach meeting”—a business meeting that any employee can attend remotely if they think they have something to contribute.
These tactics level the playing field and make every team member integral to our culture and our daily operations. That’s not only how you groom great remote workers. It’s how you create a great company culture, no matter where your offices are located.
Chris Dyer is the author of “The Power of Company Culture: How any business can build a culture that improves productivity, performance and profits,” (Kogan Page, 2018). He is the founder and CEO of PeopleG2, a background check and intelligence firm based in California. He is the host of TalentTalkon OC Talk Radio and iHeartRadio, and speaks at events around the world on company culture, remote workforces, and employee engagement. He is also a regular contributor to Forbes, Inc., HR.com, the Society for Human Resources Management and many more business publications.